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Muscat has always been a city of arrivals and departures.A maritime trading hub on the Gulf of Oman, this enigmatic city has welcomed visitors for the past 2,000 years, prompting the 15th century Omani navigator Ahmad ibn Majid al-Najdi to describe its populace as ‘hospitable and sociable people who love strangers’. His portrayal of Muscat’s citizens is as accurate today as it was 500 years ago.

A clue to Muscat’s past importance lies in its name, which is said to mean ‘anchorage’, and during much of its history most people’s first view of the city would have been from the decks of a wooden dhow as it entered one of the two natural harbours that make up the modern capital. From this vantage point Muscat will have looked much as it does today: a harmonious huddle of white-washed buildings sheltered by the warm waters of the Arabian Sea on one side, and the serrated peaks of the Al-Hajar Mountains on the other.

But whereas the dhows carried silks from China and spices from India en route to Asia, Africa, and Europe, bringing into the city merchants from Persia, the Indian subcontinent and beyond, today’s cruise liners offload their cargoes of leisure passengers eager to see what for many is their image of the archetypal Arabian city. Or, more accurately, the three cities that make up the modern capital: the old town of Muscat; the port and souq of Muttrah; and Ruwi, now the town’s main commercial centre.

For it is commerce that most defines Muscat’s character. Separated from the rest of the country by the mountains, Muscat has always looked outward, to sea, rather than inward, to Oman’s hinterland. Today, Muscat’s extrovert nature is reflected in its ethnic mix, and in its architecture, which reveals its past both as a conquered and a trading city. Standing guard over Muscat’s harbour are two massive forts, Mirani and Jalali, built when Oman became Portugal’s major military base in the 16th century, whilst along its streets are townhouses with distinctly Indian embellishments.

More than a relic of a great trading port, Muscat today is a modern and progressive capital, a city with a deep pride in its past yet warmly embracing the future, in a harmony apparent wherever you go. New buildings, by decree built in traditional low-rise Omani style, their satellite dishes screened from public view, blend seamlessly with the old. Men dressed in crisp white dishdashas, their heads swathed in colourful mussar turbans and sporting the ceremonial khanjar dagger (see sidebar) around their waists, chat animatedly on the latest model of mobile phone.

The wares on sale in the ancient, labyrinthine Al Dhalam souq in Muttrah, strung along the Corniche that hugs the bay, will also have changed very little from Muscat’s heyday as one of Arabia’s major mercantile centres. Here you’ll still find the frankincense, carpets, coffee pots, and camel saddles of centuries past, yet the sumptuous Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the suburb of Ghubrah is a thoroughly modern construction. Completed in 2001, it’s the third biggest in the world and contains the world’s largest hand-woven Persian carpet as well as its largest chandelier, glittering with Swarovski crystals. And tucked away in the heart of Muscat, approached through the main gate in the old city walls, is the striking Qasr Al Alam, the royal palace built in 1972 and seat of Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos.

In Muscat’s streets you’ll see the most fashionable cars, by law kept spotlessly clean, yet on its pavements you are everywhere met by the pungent scent of frankincense: the aromatic resin from the Dhofar region in the south of the Sultanate which brought wealth to the region since ancient times and which Omanis still use in their everyday lives to scent their clothes and homes. Frankincense, of Biblical fame, forms the main ingredient in one of the world’s most expensive perfumes, Amouage, which is made in Muscat (the factory showroom is open to visitors).
This deep love of tradition is celebrated annually, when for four weeks the Muscat Festival is held to showcase the country’s heritage, culture, and arts in several outdoor venues around the city. With its mix of poetry recitals, folk music, dance and acrobatic acts, handicraft and firework displays from Oman and surrounding countries, the festival draws visitors from around the globe. Even if you can’t visit Muscat for the festival you can still explore Oman’s past at the Bait al Zubair museum, housed behind carved wooden doors of a private residence and exhibiting traditional Omani jewellery, costumes, and weaponry.

And just as Muscat’s crafts, customs, and architecture reveal the city’s multicultural heritage, so does its cuisine assimilates ingredients from its former trading partners. Typical Omani dishes, flavoured with herbs, spices, garlic, and lime, show Arabic, Indian, and African influences whilst the city has its share of restaurants dedicated to cuisines from around the world: Middle Eastern, European, Asian, and even South American. But it is the cooking of India, as befits the capital’s long relationship with that country, that is perhaps most prevalent here, with that Muscat institution – the Mumtaz Mahal restaurant – offering not only superb Indian food and musical entertainment but a panoramic view of the city from its hilltop location.

The metropolis might have spread beyond its ancient city walls, but it is still easy to escape the modern world within Muscat itself. From Riyam Park a marked route follows an ancient path, climbing the Ophiolite Hills flanking the south of the city and skirting the 16th century Portuguese Muttrah Fort which overlooks the town. The walk passes the remains of an abandoned village and the old falaj system of aqueducts which were used to irrigate the villages and farms around Muscat, still used in many parts of rural Oman. From here there are spectacular views down to Muttrah harbour, with the huge incense burner sculpture visible on a bluff overlooking the sea.

But perhaps the very best view of Muscat is, as throughout history, from the sea itself. As dusk falls you can take a cruise in a traditional dhow around the bay as the sun sinks over the Al Hajar Mountains, when the city is suffused in a pink glow, the lights of the Corniche flicker into life, and Muscat’s past and present truly seem to merge as one.

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